The soul of the land

For classicist Pepe Romero, it's feelings, not notes

The late Andres Segovia--the artist who almost single-handedly popularized classical guitar as a concert instrument in the 20th century--had only a few favorite guitarists; Pepe Romero was one. You can hear Romero, the man the master listened to, Thursday, August 29, at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's opening-night gala concert at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center; Romero will be performing a piece of special personal resonance.

"The Concierto de Aranjuez and I, we have an incredible relationship! We love each other!" says Spanish-born Romero, 52, who has lived in Southern California since the late 1950s when his family escaped Franco's fascist regime. Romero says he was about 8 or 9 years old when he first played through the concerto's guitar part; he fell in love with it immediately. He'd heard early recordings of the piece performed by guitarist Rejino Sains de la Maza, for whom it was written in 1939 by Joaquin Rodrigo, Spain's greatest living composer. Romero also had heard it played by his father, the legendary guitarist Celedonio Romero, who passed away last May at 83.

Pepe Romero has performed the concerto hundreds of times since, throughout the world; if you ask him exactly how many times, he replies, "Not enough, not enough," and says he never tires of it. "Every time I play it, or I think of it, it's new, it's different. I always come to it with a fresh feeling of anticipation. For me, the Concierto de Aranjuez--as any great piece of music--is actually a key to a door that opens up into a different state of being, a beautiful state. It's the kind of music that is like a key to a state of grace."

Even if you don't recognize the title of the evocative second movement, you probably can hum its famous melody. The concerto has been recorded by great players in jazz and other genres, but its story is unknown to most. Tragedy came to Rodrigo and his wife, Victoria, in Aranjuez, about 30 miles from Madrid. Their first child was stillborn; Vicky was near death. The concerto's second movement, Romero says, is Rodrigo conversing with God, expressing his tender feelings for the child and the conflicting emotions of innocence, anger, and fear for his wife. The final movement conveys the peace the composer eventually finds accepting God's will.

"Since I heard this story from Rodrigo, I no longer am able to think 'notes' or 'music'; I think feelings," Romero says, "the feelings uniting my heart to the feelings that this man--whom I love so much--felt at the time." In fact, Pepe Romero virtually has become a second son to the Spanish composer, and was the featured guitarist at the official festivities commemorating Rodrigo's 90th birthday in 1993.

Why is Aranjuez so popular? "It's a phenomenal piece. It's good, genuine, inspired, and it's touched by genius. It does exactly what music should do: make people feel good. Music has a purpose in creation. [It] plays a very important role, far more than most people realize. For that reason, it's very important to use it always with respect, with compassion, and--above all--with love." This awareness is typical of the modest Romero, who never flaunts Segovia's endorsement and rarely even mentions it, especially in public.

Ties closer than a beloved work bind Rodrigo and Romero. Pepe is part of "The Royal Family of the Guitar," a clan that revolutionized classical music in the early 1960s with the world's first guitar quartet, Los Romeros, originally consisting of Pepe, his father, and Pepe's two virtuoso brothers, cngel and Celin. In 1966, Papa Romero suggested that good friend Rodrigo write something for the quartet. The result was the first piece specifically composed for four guitars and orchestra. Papa Romero named it Concierto Andaluz for its flamenco themes drawn from the family's native Andalucia, a region of southern Spain. The Romeros premiered and recorded it in 1967 with the San Antonio Symphony. That recording was reissued on CD this year.

Pepe Romero also gave the world premiere of what likely will be the final Rodrigo guitar concerto, the Concierto Para Una Fiesta ("Concerto In Honor of a Party"), dedicated to Pepe. It was commissioned by William and Carol McKay of Fort Worth on the occasion of their two daughters' debutante ball, at which Romero and the Fort Worth Symphony first performed the piece in 1983.

Rodrigo is only one of many composers whose music Romero performs and records; Romero's discography numbers more than 50 albums and ranges from baroque pieces to modern Latin-American music. His current release is an album of guitar fantasies based on opera music, and he has a guitar-and-voice album in the works with his friend, opera diva Jessye Norman. He also has added significantly to the guitar repertoire through original works written for him and his numerous transcriptions for guitar.

How is it different playing a piece of music when he knows the composer personally? "For me, it's separate. I feel I can know a composer who has been dead for 100 or 200 or whatever years, because through the music you transcend time and space and you get to know a composer intimately or--at least--what he was feeling, the state of bliss, grace, love, or whatever the feelings and passions or inspirations were that were touching that composer at that time. Playing a work by a composer whom you know, he can tell you about the piece. But even when you have spoken with a composer, it is the music itself that has to speak to the player. You almost have to forget any preconceived idea [and] come with an empty mind so the piece can speak to you each time for the first time."

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